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Interview: Bradbury Thompson


Bradbury Thompson’s career spanned more than fifty years. During that time, he witnessed and participated in dramatic technological changes, changes he was able to transcend with a classicist’s typographic sensibility. His design of publications from Mademoiselle to Westvaco inspirations to the Washburn College Bible were but part of a body of work legendary in its scope and beauty. He is also held in high esteem for his contributions to design education while serving for more than thirty years on the faculty of Yale University. I spoke with him in 1990 while he was in Chicago to receive the Master Teacher Award from the Graphic Design Education Association.

How do you view current trends in graphic design? There are many new technologies which are no doubt exciting for graphic designers to encounter. They offer so many possibilities, however, so many typefaces, that there is the temptation to use them without restraint or an eye towards readability. Typography can be fun if you do things inventively, but it should be done with a purpose that has meaning for others, not just you or your friends or your colleagues.

It reminds me of the Victorian 1880s and 1890s when new and elaborate typefaces were being used in ways inconsistent with the true function of typography. The extravagant arrangements of typefaces created in that period are reminders of what I see going on now. We must not forget the purpose of typography, which is reaching others.

An important characteristic of good typography is readability, the kind of readability that we experience in books. This is reflected in basic upper and lower case typography and the use of punctuation. Capitals are particularly important, but not when used by themselves in quantity. I find the setting of text in all upper case to be quite unreadable.

I also feel that consistency is important. I particularly like the use of upper and lower case in headings and subheadings, for example. If you want to design something with true integrity, you must use the same principles throughout.

But what about the concept of style? Are you saying that style is inappropriate in graphic design? We are governed by what goes on in our world. We are experiencing a period of change in terms of what’s technologically available. So live it up, as long as basic readability and service to the reader isn’t compromised.

Right now there is the tendency to use the new technologies to create work that does not adhere to fundamental principles. Those working with type should have fun – I certainly did – but not at the expense of readability, aesthetics and effective communication.

Should the profession try to educate those who have newly gained access to the tools of typography? There tends to be a flattening out of impact as a technology reaches more and more people. The technology also shapes the way designers think. It will all come back around, the way the Victorian use of ornate typography gave way again to classic typography based on the objective of readability and the objective communication of ideas.

What effect has teaching had on your work as a designer? I have been fortunate to teach. As a teacher, you are working with young men and women, which help to keep graphic direction in balance for both teacher and student. Benjamin Franklin said, “You tell me and I forget. You teach me and I remember. You involve me and I learn.”

The teaching of graphic design is especially benefited by direct involvement with students. Ideally, my students were assigned publication projects that required original concepts, historical research, design, writing, editing and the eventual combination of weekly segments into a cohesive, integrated book.

If the students worked with images and alphabets of past centuries, they were required to create formats in the spirit of our own time. The project was reviewed and discussed thoroughly at each stage of development.

Your career has been shaped by long-term relationships with remarkable clients, which in many cases allowed you to work with minimal restrictions. Tell us about the development of those relationships. If you think I’ve done some interesting things – well, I’ve just been lucky.

In the beginning, back in Topeka, where I worked on the high school yearbook and the college yearbook at Washburn University, I worked directly with the kind of persons who printed the book, who set the type, and who shot the photographs. During high school and college, I also worked half days directly with kind engineering draftsmen on plans for roads and bridges.

I admired the very nice magazines of the era. There were not many magazines at that time that had fine art or photography, except those very fancy ones: Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar.

I had seen Westvaco Inspirations at the printer in Topeka, and once I moved to New York took the chance and the opportunity was there. It did allow me to do my own thing. The consulting relationship with Westvaco has lasted for 52 years.

After the war, I had an invitation to work for Art News and Art News Annual. They were handsome publications; the editors selected great works of art. But it didn’t provide the same kind of pleasure as the Inspirations work, where I had complete control and where one of the aims of the publication was to show great printing. The association as design director with Art News continued for 27 years.

I was also asked to be art director for Mademoiselle which was not Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar, but to young people it was, and this was even more fun. That association continued for 15 years. Working for those three – Inspirations, Art News and Mademoiselle – provided a complete magazine experience.

Another pleasant long-term relationship, as you have described it, has been the 21-year association with the U.S. Postal Service’s Citizen Stamp Advisory Committee and the design of over 100 stamps.

Over time, I’ve been asked to redesign publications of all kinds, including trade magazines such as Business Week, Modern Plastics and Electronics. There was another kind of reward experienced here. In these situations, I was asked to address things that were not right. Since I was considered objective and came from the outside, I was able to solve problems. It was a satisfying thing.

This is often as important as anything else. Young people will realize this. Many times people do great work not for money but because they get to do what they want to do, because it goes to the people that they want to reach and because it is helpful to their community.

Published in Statements, the quarterly of the American Center for Design, 1990

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